What Are the Different Ways to Use Onomatopoeia?

Alan Rankin

Onomatopoeia is the literary term for words that are intended to imitate sounds. Common examples include buzz, zip, and click. Used as a literary device for centuries in many languages, onomatopoeia is also commonly used in speech, often by children but also by adults. Comic books are famous for using the technique for sound effects, to the extent that many people cannot think of comics without thinking of their sound effects and vice versa.

Onomatopoeia is often used in comic strips.
Onomatopoeia is often used in comic strips.

One of the most common ways to use onomatopoeia is to imitate animal noises, such as meow and quack. All languages use these words, although each language may have its own version of a particular sound. For example, the colorful phrase cock-a-doodle-doo is recognized throughout the English-speaking world as the morning crow of a rooster. In Japan, however, the sound is translated as kokekokko, while non-English European countries may write it as some variation of kikiriki. Other forms of onomatopoeia share this trait. The sound is universal, but the written or spoken form varies from language to language.

The onomatopoeia "woof," or the sound a dog makes, varies throughout the world.
The onomatopoeia "woof," or the sound a dog makes, varies throughout the world.

Children often learn these sounds at an early age, although they may not learn the word onomatopoeia itself until much later. It is common to use these sounds to teach children how to recognize different animals and objects. Youngsters are often amused by the imitative quality of these words and may repeat them endlessly. A popular children’s toy from the 1960s, Mattel’s See n’ Say, played these words aloud when children selected the corresponding animal or object with a pointer arrow.

Adults also use onomatopoeia to indicate the sounds of various objects and animals. Such words are used to name everyday items, such as the zipper, as well as animals like the whippoorwill, after the sounds they make. Advertisers sometimes employ these words to market merchandise that makes distinctive sounds. Writers often use onomatopoeia as a literary device. For example, in the 1906 poem “The Highwayman,” Alfred Noyes employs the phrase "tlot-tlot" to suggest a horse’s hooves clattering on a cobbled road.

Perhaps the most famous use of onomatopoeia is to present sound effects in comic books. Pioneered by comic strip artist Roy Crane in the 1930s, this technique gained wide notoriety when it was transferred to the Batman TV series of the 1960s. As a result, mainstream journalists felt obliged to employ words like “Bam!” and “Pow!” when writing about any aspect of comics for the following thirty years. Some comics artists like Don Martin and Wally Wood were famous for their creative sound effects. In the 21st century, comics writers such as Alan Moore and Warren Ellis dispensed with the practice entirely, feeling it detracted from the realism of their stories.

Onomatopoeia can be used as a literary device.
Onomatopoeia can be used as a literary device.

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